Ever since A24 was founded in 2012 by three film production veterans it has turned into the little indie studio that could, distributing and producing an average of 12 films per year, running the gamut from satirical comedies (Spring Breakers), dramedies (20th Century Women, Laggies), coming of age stories with a modern twist (Morris from America), crime thrillers (Son of a Gun), award-winning sci-fi (Ex Machina), dramas (Room, Moonlight) and documentaries (Amy) and whatever you’d call Swiss Army Man (magical realism meets stoner comedy?). Point being: you can’t really put A24 in a box and say it’s a company which only makes one kind of movie. However, in recent years one particular subset of A24’s portfolio has emerged and suggested that even with the wide variety of movies the studio makes (or simply distributes) it might be especially good at one specific genre: gorgeously photographed, slow-moving horror with surprisingly contemporary themes.
It Comes at Night, which was recently hailed in a widely read Vox review as a “terrifying, uncomoftably relevant horror masterpiece,” is but the latest such A24 horror gem, following last year’s The Witch, Green Room (which, to be fair, has a much faster pace than the rest) and The Monster and this year’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter. These are all films which attempt to bridge the gap between pure art-house fare and broad commercial appeal, and the best among them manage to launch a thousand thinkpieces, generate considerable online buzz (often through mis-leading trailers) and sucker wide audiences into attending, usually unprepared for the kind of film they’re truly in for.
It Comes at Night‘s Plot: The world has ended. Or not. There’s a plague. Or not. There are monsters/aliens who come out in the woods at night. Or not. Frankly, we have no idea what’s happened. All we know is that within a desolate, boarded-up home in the woods a man (Joel Edgerton) has established a tenuous order with his wife (Carmen Ejobo) and 17-year-old son (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). But after he begrudgingly provides refuge to a desperate young family (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough) he struggles to shake his newfound distrust of others and (perhaps well-founded) paranoia. Plus, his son keeps having PTSD-induced dreams which invariably lead to one jump scare after another.
That should and can be a good thing. You want to surprise and challenge your audience, but the result is an ongoing divide between high RottenTomatoes scores for the A24 horror movies and low RottenTomatoes audience ratings for those same movies (Green Room fared the best with a 90% RT score versus 75% rating). Witch, It Comes at Night and the rest are films which wow the film nerds of the world but tax the patience of those just wanting a good scare, like the kind they find in any of Blumhouse’s signature micro-budget horror offerings.
I witnessed this firsthand over the weekend when one moviegoer in my It Comes at Night screening sarcastically quipped to her husband, “Please, hold the shot on that picture longer because this hasn’t gone on nearly long enough already,” in response to cinematographer Drew Daniels’ camera lingering over a painting of a biblical apocalypse for what seemed like an eternity. Then later that night I read Vox’s review, which has a very different take on Daniels’ work:
The house at the center of It Comes at Night is as haunted as any house in horror, and cinematographer Drew Daniels indulges in long, slow pans through its endless empty corridors, as well as lush shots of deeply isolated woods that slowly heighten the film’s growing claustrophobia. It’s a beautiful film.
Beautiful and masterfully calustraophobic to one, boring and annoyingly self-indulgent to another.
But, hey, people have different opinions about movies, and anything which deviates from the classical Hollywood style is bound to turn some people off. That’s not any great insight on my part, and due to A24’s aggressive deals with DirectTV and Amazon all of their movies eventually find their true audience on streaming. There are probably many who are going to skip It Comes at Night in theaters knowing that in three months (or less) it will be free to stream on Amazon Prime.
Is it worth your time, though, regardless of whether you choose to watch it now in theaters or later in your home or on the-go via a mobile device?
The answer is simple: Have you seen The Witch or It Follows (a Weinsten film which feels like it should have been an A24 film)? Did you dislike them? Then you’ll probably feel the same way about It Comes at Night. However, if you liked those movies then chances are high It Comes at Night is right in your wheelhouse. It has that same moody atmosphere which feels more influenced by classic literature, Lars Von Trier, Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanely Kubrick than by any other horror movie, and beneath its occasional jump scare and moments of action are long stretches of relative silence, breathtakingly gorgeous individual shots and plenty of subtext for you to sink your teeth into and wrap your head around.
For example, what does the film’s treatment of paranoia says about our current sociopolitical atmosphere? What are we to make, if anything, of the racial composition of the cast (both couples are mixed-race)? What, if any, scary societal “other” is the unseen and unexplained menace in the woods supposed to represent? How deeply can we read into the differing viewpoints of the film’s two competing father figures, Edgerton all about authority, Abbott all about understanding? And just how many words can I squeeze into my thinkpiece comparing this movie to Trumpism?
I didn’t find those questions or their answers especially interesting, though. Instead, It Comes at Night was more purely enjoyable as a well-acted moodpiece (and man is this movie ever heavy on the mood and atmosphere) with an ongoing mystery of whether or not the new family are who they say are. While it grew tiresome for all of the film’s “horror” moments to come via Harrison, Jr.’s fake-out recurring nightmares the eventual climax was too devastating to look away from and plenty horrific enough.
As I walked out of the theater, surrounded by deadly silent moviegoers with “WTF was that?” looks on their faces, I paused to appreciate that A24 is out there taking risks like this, parlaying their success elsewhere into securing wide distribution for a slow-moving, audience-challenging movie like It Comes at Night. I’m not always among the fans of such material (e.g., I was in the minority in disliking The Witch), and the overabundance of atmosphere over plot in It Comes at Night did tax my patience. I can’t really heap hyperbolic praise on it like Vox, but It Comes at Night is definitely a very affecting movie with one of the more memorable final shots of any film I’ve seen this year.